Fresh call for archive law to halt destruction of documents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am

Six of Hong Kong's 12 policy bureaus have not stored a single file in the government archives over the past five years, official figures show.

And for every page of a document transferred to the archive for permanent retention last year, 289 pages were destroyed.

The figure was 101 pages destroyed in the year before last, and it is expected to be 52 for the coming year, as disclosed in the government's replies to lawmakers' questions on the budget plan.

Activists and lawmakers say the low transfer rate proves the need for an archive law.

They fault the current system as amateurish and arbitrary, and have renewed their push for laws on archiving and freedom of information in light of the latest figures released in the legislature.

'Having the files is the minimum standard of how the public can monitor the government,' said lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan. 'We need archive and freedom-of-information acts to offer safeguards.'

Of the almost 189,000 records transferred to the government archive - the Government Records Service (GRS) - in the five years from 2006 to 2010, the 12 policy bureaus accounted for only 2,010 files, or 1.1 per cent. That includes submissions from bureaus that existed before the administrative restructuring in 2007.

The Security Bureau, whose wide-ranging brief includes safeguarding the city against terrorism, sent in only 42 files - all unclassified - over the five years, the lowest number among the six bureaus that transferred records. But it failed to transfer even a single classified item, former GRS director Simon Chu Fook-keung said.

'Given its sensitive nature, documents from this bureau should be of the juiciest kind, but it is strange there were no classified files stored,' said Chu, who co-founded the Archives Action Group with a group of former judges and scholars pushing for archival legislation.

Chu noted that even when some departments transfer huge numbers of documents - such as the more than 86,000 from the Architectural Services Department over the five years - there is no way to guarantee that the administration has stored the crucial files.

'Even records of stationery purchases can count as archives,' he said.

The archive building in Kwun Tong is open for the public to check files. But over the past five years only 25,000 records were opened for public inspection.

Policy bureau documents opened to the public have ranged from only one to 13 per bureau every year. Some bureaus, including Home Affairs and Commerce and Economic Development, have gone several years in succession without opening any files.

The Department of Justice has not opened any since four were disclosed to the public in 2006.

The current government archival system is outlined by a 15-page internal circular from the administration.

Titled 'Mandatory Records Management Requirements', it says bureaus and departments 'must obtain consent from [the] GRS director before disposing of records, to safeguard against premature disposal of records and destruction of records having archival value'.

But Chu said the apparently compulsory nature of the guideline is only a formality. 'In reality and in practice, mandatory guidelines are still guidelines; bureaus and departments can choose to ignore them.'

The guidelines set out no consequences for those who fail to follow them.

They also emphasise 'proper supervision' of the disposal process, asking the departments to appoint senior executive officers to handle the process.

Yet, Chu noted: 'Executive officers are civil servants who do not receive proper training in archiving.' According to the government, training programmes for GRS staff include attending relevant courses and international conferences.

Chu described the training he received before claiming to be a professional archivist.

'I worked for two years in the GRS, received a year of overseas training and went through a two-year attachment to a foreign archive.'

On the record

The number of records transferred by bureaus and departments to the Government Records Service between 2006 and 2010 188,779 (185,994 are unclassified and 2,785 classified)

They included:

Security Bureau 42 unclassified

Civil Service Bureau 91 unclassified

Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau 2 unclassified and 409 classified

Environment, Commerce and Economic Development, Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Labour and Welfare, Development, Transport and Housing 0

Source: Director of Adminstration